New technologies and digitisation promise to mature the AM market

Nicola Brittain

The additive manufacturing market is growing and changing, but analyst Sona Dadhania has high hopes for the future. By Nicola Brittain.

A recent webinar hosted by US-based consultancy company IDTEchEX reviewed current trends in the additive manufacturing (AM) sector and argued that although expectations might have been overblown, innovations in technology and maturation of the market will turn AM into a services industry with a much larger customer base than it currently serves.

Trends in AM

Sona Dadhania, senior technology analyst at the company, delivered a mutedly hopeful presentation on the future of the AM market. On the upside, Dadhania outlined new hardware innovations coming to market as well as the use of metal powder in AM which she said would broaden the likely application of the technology considerably.

She also explained that widespread automation and digitisation were lowering the barriers to entry across the entire supply chain and that larger companies were increasingly developing proprietary technology for in-house use, further expanding the AM infrastructure and use cases.

One example of a company to have developed its own in-house AM production capacity using concrete is India-based company MiCoB which supplies to sectors including civil, military, and decoration.

In addition the analyst explained that an increasing number of 3D printing companies were experimenting with a scalable service or leasing model for their industrial customers.

Dadhania also gave an overview of the most interesting start-ups in the space, explaining that many are using new printing methods as well as iterations on established technologies. The techniques she cited were rapid liquid printing, dynamic moulding, and volumetric additive manufacturing (VAM).

Rapid liquid printing

Originally developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) self-assembly lab, Rapid liquid printing draws a liquid object in three dimensions within a gel suspension. The object sets while printing and is ready for use with minimal post-processing.

The technique can also deliver large-scale objects from high-grade materials such as rubber, foam, and plastic in a matter of minutes. The speed is important since 3D processes have traditionally been slow, similarly, older manufacturing techniques also had limited build volumes and poor material quality, making them unfeasible for mainstream use – this new method means the adoption of 3D-printing is more likely to become widespread since Rapid Liquid Printing can produce large-scale, airtight, non-rigid products in minutes.

Dynamic moulding

Dynamic moulding is an emerging technology developed by US-based start-up 3Deus Dynamic, a company established in October 2020. This innovation is a hybrid between 3D-printing and injection moulding – and it allows for the process of all injectable materials available on the market without chemical reformulation or support structure. Additionally, there are no limits on the size or shape of the product produced. Materials that can be created using dynamic moulding techniques are widespread, from low to high viscosity, and including thermoplastic and elastomers.

VAM technology

Initially developed at the University of Colorado Boulder in a bid to solve a number of challenges involved in photopolymer 3D-printing, Volumetric Additive Manufacturing (VAM) technology is being taken to market by start-up Vitro3D and has seen the company raise US$1.3 million in seed funding. Again, this technology removes the need for support structures and can make complex parts in high-viscous materials.

VAM works a bit like a CAT scan, so an object goes into a machine that has a circular structure and takes pictures from many different angles then uses a computational algorithm to combine the pictures and form a three-dimensional virtual image. The software then uses an algorithm that takes a three-dimensional virtual object, deconstructs it into different angles then projects a two-dimensional image onto photopolymerisable resin. As the intensities overlap where they are highest, they create the regions that will turn from liquid to solid.

New verticals

Dadhania also explained that the technology was last year taken up by several high-profile verticals, including Tesla’s Giga Casting technology which uses sand binder jetting of moulds for several of its electric vehicle parts; Apple’s metal binder jetting of steel chassis for the Apple Watch Ultra; and dental aligner manufacturer Align Technologies which acquired Cubicure to enable the development of dental aligners.

Market snapshot

Despite this technological innovation and some high-profile adoption of AM technology, there was actually a fall in investment and mergers and acquisitions activity in 2023 compared with 2022. With US$893 million in public investment in 3D-related companies in 2023 versus US$1.3 billion in 2022, AM could be viewed as a sector in trouble. But Dadhania argues that this is not the long term picture, instead she argues that it reflects a precarious economic climate following an injection of investment and economic activity in 2022 after the global pandemic.

In 2023 there was some realignment of business models as companies worked hard to make the technology economically viable, this included German-based market leader Oerlikon strategically realigning its AM business and consolidating in the

US, due to “adverse market conditions” in Germany. Similarly, 3devo, an extrusion 3D-printing company, shifted its business model away from equipment sales towards a ‘project partnership’ model.

The future of AM

Despite a difficult 2023, IDTechEx argues that the future of AM is bright with new and innovative technologies, the growing services nature of the technology, and the fact there is increasing automation and digitisation through the supply chain. In fact, the company predicts that the technology will accrue US$44 billion in revenue by 2034. However, right now AM manufacturers should focus on withstanding fast-changing global economic conditions and perhaps reconsider how they might deliver their technology to end-users.